Elizabeth Banks talks about her passion for the character of Effie in The Hunger Games and how much she enjoyed bringing her to life, despite the intense heat on some days of filming. She also discusses the themes of the book and how she hopes it will inspire people who see it.
Is it true that you wrote a letter asking to be given the role?
Elizabeth Banks: Well, I really loved the books and I was an early adopter of The Hunger Games. I read them before they were best-sellers and I was literally on the pre-order wait list for Mockingjay on Amazon. So, [director] Gary [Ross] and I [had] made Seabiscuit together, so when he got the job I knew that this book was in great hands and he and I are friends, so I just sent him an email and said: 'I love these books and I'd love to play Effie...' And he said to me: 'Yeah, that's great Banks. I need to find Katniss [Everdeen]!' I think I emailed him the day after he got the job. I was like: 'So, you got the job? I'd like to play Effie.' And he was like: 'Yeah, yeah... I have to find these kids first.' [Laughs]
What was it about Effie that made you want to play her?
Elizabeth Banks: I just think she's a very fun character to play. I had a great time playing her. I went to drama school and when you're in drama school you get to play those kind of characters all the time and then you think you'll go out into the world and then you never get to do that. So, to play someone so theatrical and over the top... she's a villain but she's very loveable. She's comic relief but she's very layered. There's so much going on with her. So, that's what I loved about her and every conversation that I had with Gary was how to really make sure that she was not written off as comic relief, but [that] there was more to her.
She's also visually interesting - how did you feel when you finally saw yourself as her?
Elizabeth Banks: She's very visually interesting! It was really fun to watch myself disappear in the mirror every day and watch Effie appear. We had an 'a-ha!' moment every day on set. Sometimes, it was when the lip went on, or when her hat went on, or the shoes. Everything contributed to the character. The clothes are very constricting and a great reminder that she lives in this totalitarian regime and is oppressed. The hair... we drew a lot of comparisons to Marie Antoinette when we were crafting her look. For me, she is the latter day Effie in that she sat in the castle saying 'let them eat cake'... she was the 1% and the 99% starved around her and she didn't seem to care.
It shouldn't be unusual and yet it is but it's unusual for a franchise like this to be anchored by such a strong role for a female character. Instead of hankering after two men, it's the guys really that are almost the damsels-in-distress... Is that something you have thoughts on?
Elizabeth Banks: It's great. It's another one of the reasons why I love the book and the trilogy. I think she's a great heroine and a great role model for young people. If there's a message in the movie, for me it's that young people matter, that their actions have consequences... that you can make a difference in your world through acts of courage and bravery and dignity and love and hope versus our basest nature. That's what I love about the book. She is that sort of beacon of hope in a really dark world.
Given the burden of expectation surrounding a project such as The Hunger Games, did you feel any pressure while filming?
Elizabeth Banks: Well, you can't please everybody. For me, it was let's please Gary [Ross], the director, because it was his vision. So, let's serve that. And then if Suzanne [Collins], the sort of goddess of Panem and this world and these characters, if she's happy, then I'm happy.
When casting is first announced on popular books such as these, there can sometimes be an uproar among fans about who is playing the roles they love. Did you get any of that?
Elizabeth Banks: I was really lucky because I had the support of Entertainment Weekly in the United States, which was very nice. They said: 'Cast her!' And then they did cast me and I was like: 'Oh, they don't know that they are going to cast me!' But it was really nice. Again, though, we can't please everyone. There's just no way to do it and so I hope the haters... I would like to turn them around [laughs]. I hope they leave the movie going: 'Yeah, she was fine.'
How was working with Woody Harrelson? I gather you had a crush going in?
Elizabeth Banks: I'm in love with him! Everyone is in love with Woody. He's very lovable. He's the great Haymitch. I'd never met him. We have mutual friends and we started telling each other very crass jokes within four minutes of meeting each other. And then he really made me laugh with a very off-colour joke that I cannot repeat to the media and he was sort of shocked at how giggly I got over this material. So, we became fast friends.
Obviously, there are some little tweaks here and there from the book, so how do you feel about those, as a fan?
Elizabeth Banks: I think the essence of the books is in the movie and that, to me, is the most important thing. If there is anything that as a fan I was missing, it would be really hard to say. We can't ever be in Katniss' brain like we are in the books, so we never really know how she feels about anything that is happening, except that Jennifer does such a great job conveying everything with her face. It's amazing... with her eyes. I really loved the Avoxes. To me, they really represent the brutality of the Capitol and I think you get that in the movie anyway. But I always thought they were really cool characters.
Are you filming the sequels back-to-back or is in one movie at a time?
Elizabeth Banks: The rumour is that it's one movie at a time.
Have they spoken to you about splitting the final book into two, as seems the norm with bigger franchise films based on novels nowadays? Are you contracted for three or four films?
Elizabeth Banks: I don't know. I don't think we can confirm or deny that [laughs]. I can confirm there are three books and I don't know how many movies!
Did you have any insights into how the violence was going to be handled in the movie? Was it a condition of you signing up not to make it too violent or not watered-down?
Elizabeth Banks: I had total faith in Gary. From all my conversations with him and knowing him and knowing how passionate he was about the material I knew that he was... we knew we were making a PG-13 movie, so it's important to remember that. Tone was something that was discussed constantly on set... you know, how to preserve as much as we could to delineate the stakes in the movie - that this is life and death. And that The Hunger Games are brutal and horrifying. But at the same time, protect the audience as well. I think it's a great balance.
It's funny, the film is about a society that's been desensitized to violence and you could argue that kids nowadays have become desensitized to it...
Elizabeth Banks: I don't want them to be desensitized. I hope actually that this is a conversation starter about exactly where we're at with senseless violence in the media now. You feel every death in this unlike some of the completely senseless gun-play in a big action movie that leaves 30 people dead on the street and nobody even thinks about it.
The reaping scene is incredible. What was the atmosphere like on set that day? You have a lot of children present...
Elizabeth Banks: It was 100 degrees. There was a lot of hydrating, especially with the kids. Effie is in her full regalia the entire time on stage, so I stood on the stage in the sun. They were kind enough to put me in this weird room... our trailers were not close. So, I had to stay close to set and they put me in this little back-stage area and they brought in an air conditioning unit and they blew it directly on me. The air conditioning unit had the temperature on it and it never got below 87 Fahrenheit. So, even with the air conditioning unit blowing directly on me in a room that was 3 by 6, it was always hovering around 90 degrees [laughs]. I was full body drenched. I'd stand up and sweat was pouring off me. There was this puddle. It was good times, good times!
Interview: Rob Carnevale Photo: Lionsgate